By CHRIS McGOWAN
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By CHRIS McGOWAN
WandaVision is arguably the most unusual Marvel Studios production to date. Not only does the series place Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) characters in the unfamiliar territory of TV sitcom land, it presents episodes with the precise look of particular decades in television history, ranging from the 1950s to the 2010s. The six-hour, nine-episode series references the sitcoms The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Roseanne, Malcolm in the Middle and Modern Family with camera lenses, aspect ratios, lighting, production design, color palettes and period FX.
Modern VFX are present to the greatest degree in episodes that have more MCU-style scenes, some with full CG environments. “It is true that we have a higher [VFX] shot count than Avengers: Endgame,” comments Visual Effects Supervisor Tara DeMarco. “However, I would say the complexity of the work in Endgame is off the charts! Our show is significantly longer and the visual effects are integral to the story in later episodes.”
To kick off the strangeness, the opening two episodes are in black-and-white (Episode 1 was also filmed in front of a studio audience) and conjure up the atmospheres of The Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched, except that the lead characters happen to be Wanda Maximoff – the reality-warping Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) – and Vision (Paul Bettany), her hyper-intelligent android companion last seen perishing twice in the MCU. The sitcom banter and gags are familiar, but something is not quite right in suburbia in this series written by Jac Schaeffer – are we inside Wanda’s mind or lost in some sort of parallel universe?
The show’s innovative blending of sitcom reality with the Marvel universe attracted director Matt Shakman, who has deeply immersed himself in most TV genres. Formerly a child star in the sitcom Just the Ten of Us, Shakman, also the Artistic Director of the Geffen Playhouse theater in Los Angeles, has directed episodes across all genres, including Game of Thrones, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Succession and The Boys.
“I am a huge fan of the MCU. I admire the storytelling and the risk-taking. From Iron Man to Guardians of the Galaxy to Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel Studios is constantly surprising,” says Shakman. “When I heard the pitch about WandaVision, it blew my mind – the beauty of it, the ambition and the innovation. As a director, I work in comedy and drama and large-scale spectacle. With WandaVision, I get to do all those things at the same time.” Shakman’s duties ranged “from doing an episode in front of a live audience, which drew on my theater experience and my sitcom past, to orchestrating large MCU set pieces, which drew on skills I developed on shows like Game of Thrones and The Boys.”
“It is true that we have a higher [VFX] shot count than Avengers: Endgame. However, I would say the complexity of the work in Endgame is off the charts! Our show is significantly longer and the visual effects are integral to the story in later episodes.”
—Tara DeMarco, Visual Effects Supervisor
For Shakman, doing the homework for WandaVision included watching “episode after episode of the best TV comedies ever made.” Director of photography Jess Hall adds, “Matt Shakman introduced me to specific shows he was interested in and then we refined these further. I created collections of still images from the original shows for each period that represented my intentions. Then Matt, [production designer] Mark Worthington and I looked at these regularly and talked about framing, composition, production design, color, etc. I also studied literature about the making of the more iconic series and looked at behind-the-scenes photographs to see what techniques they were using, particularly in relation to lighting.”
Hall used 47 different lenses across the production. “From day one, I began excavating the vaults at Panavision Woodland Hills and testing vintage lenses combined with period lighting techniques and instruments,” he adds.
The production design also shifted through time. “Mark created the same house in every different era,” Shakman remarks, “as if it were built in the ’50s, and slowly renovated over time. We were fascinated by the idea of iterating everything through the ages – the house, the family car, the TV, the fireplace, the couch, the stairs. Even the products in the refrigerator are the same; they just change through the eras.”
“A large part of each era’s look is in camera,” DeMarco explains. “We had highly stylized sets with era-specific palettes. We took all the goodness achieved in camera and then pushed them further in the DI. For example, we loved how the digital transfer from film to video in the ’80s caused a red channel bloom in the picture, so we added the same style bloom to our shots in post.”
Shakman adds that the filmmakers paid close attention to “making sure we got our period colors correct, and were also carefully charting a progression from episode to episode. We also used color as signifiers – red being an important one for both Wanda and Vision; its use was quite specific throughout the show.”
“Each episode has its own hero palette and DI finishing style with variable grain, blooming and softness,” says DeMarco. “We really made a push to be faithful to the era-correct VFX of each sitcom, which affected the styles of VFX for the very different looking episodes. Our MCU episodes have a more modern Marvel look to them. We purposefully gave them a cleaner, sharper look to contrast from the sitcoms.”
For its Special Effects Supervisor, WandaVision turned to Dan Sudick, who was Special Effects Supervisor on Avengers: Endgame and Avengers: Infinity War, has garnered 10 Academy Award nominations to date and shared a VES award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature for Avengers: Infinity War. Recalls Shakman, “When I first met with Marvel’s special effects maestro, Dan Sudick, I was a little bit sheepish. He’s the best in the business at blowing things up and building giant spaceships, and here I was about to ask him to do a bunch of old-school wire and rod gags. But instead of him rolling his eyes, he was thrilled. Dan came up under the guys who did Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. He knew this stuff like the back of his hand and really loved revisiting the old techniques.” And, Shakman notes, the charm of the practical effects “helped to differentiate the sitcom magic from MCU moments that sneak in.”
Effects for the early episodes were mostly achieved in camera. “The floating objects [such as in Episodes 1 and 2] were achieved practically on set using puppeteers and sometimes complex wire rigs that competed for space in my overhead lighting rigs,” Hall says. “We undercranked the camera and adjusted the shutter to achieve in-camera motion blur for Vision’s accelerated actions. Whenever possible we shot locked-off plates for elements on the actual set and avoided greenscreen.”
“VFX and SFX are BFF on a Marvel show,” says DeMarco. “We worked together in the planning stages and discussed each gag at length. Practical effects would test the wire rigs and we would decide together the best methodology for combining multiple passes of wire-rigged plates, or a CG takeover of a mostly practical puppeteered effect. We have a healthy combination of 2D and CG in the early episodes. Wanda’s kitchen was filled with both objects on wires and CG items.”
“When I heard the pitch about WandaVision, it blew my mind – the beauty of it, the ambition and the innovation. As a director, I work in comedy and drama and large-scale spectacle. With WandaVision, I get to do all those things at the same time. … [My duties range] from doing an episode in front of a live audience, which drew on my theater experience and my sitcom past, to orchestrating large MCU set pieces, which drew on skills I developed on shows like Game of Thrones and The Boys.”
—Matt Shakman, Director
Continues DeMarco, “This show had everything – 2D plates-based VFX, full CG environments, digi-double fight scenes, complex FX and a lead actor with a CG face. All the good stuff.” Regarding Paul Bettany, she adds, “Paul wore a bald cap with special paint and special tracking markers for alignment. The paint gave us a sheen that we use in the final Vision look. The tracking markers helped us place the panels on his skin and the metal that wraps around the back of his head.
“I love working on a blend of practical effects and CG VFX,” DeMarco acknowledges. “WandaVision has been very hard work but super fun,” says DeMarco.
The black-and-white episodes were shot in color, but finished in B&W. “The major challenge was with translating Vision into B&W. His red makeup films quite dark on the sensor and he didn’t look like the Vision we all know and love,” says DeMarco. “We did a few days of camera tests with different shades of blue makeup and several DI tests to set a look for Vision that felt right for the 1950s/1960s. Actresses of the era would use blue lipstick instead of red, so we took a cue from them.” Vision regains his normal hue in Episode 3, which has a heavy 1970s Brady Bunch influence.
“As far as the black-and-white finishing was concerned, I went to great lengths to create an authentic ’50s look,” says Hall. “The challenge was that this analog look had to ultimately exist within a 4K HDR platform, so with Josh Pines at Technicolor, I built a black-and-white LUT [Lookup Table] with specific features to control the HDR factor and the expanded dynamic range. To create the desired tonal range, the colors in the set and wardrobe design were critical. I tested these extensively and selectively used a color matrix in the final DI that mimicked the variable sensitivity of black-and-white emulsion to color.”
“One of the key techniques I relied on to control the visual integrity in color of each episode,” Hall explains, “was to build color palettes for each period based on data I extracted from reference stills. I used the specific RGB values of colors that appeared regularly in the period reference to create 20 or 30 colors that formed a color palette for my lighting, but also for the art department and costume designer. I knew restricting the color palette was the best way to take control of the image and to give it period integrity, as it was a process I developed on Ghost in the Shell.”
Hall continues, “There was certainly a final layer of refinement to the image in the Digital Intermediate where we used the tools of Resolve in addition to color work to intensify certain characteristics like softness, highlight bloom or grain structure. However, this was always about enhancing what we already had, and we never had to compete against what had been photographed because – [with] color science, lensing, lighting through design – the look for each era had been conceived and executed predominantly in camera.
“The 1970s was an interesting decade, because I was targeting an early color film look which is hard to achieve digitally,” adds Hall. “I worked meticulously with Mark Worthington and [costume designer] Mayes Rubeo to find the right balance of color in the frame and to accent this using complimentary colors. The Episode 3 LUT stretched the color separation even further, and then in the DI we used Resolve to push certain colors a little further or shift their hue to a more pastel and secondary realm.”
Hall worked with Technicolor’s Pines on the color science to develop LUTs for each period. “We had 23 different LUTs in total,” Hall says. “During my first camera test, I became aware of the expanded color gamut available when mastering in 4K HDR – we were the first Marvel project to establish this as part of our principal photography workflow.”
“We allowed ourselves to use the full range of modern VFX tools for the MCU episodes,” says DeMarco. “We were very restrained in VFX for some of the sitcom episodes, so the modern VFX are part of the cue to the viewer that we’re not in sitcom world anymore.”
For the transition to the MCU reality, “quite a lot of that is done with sound, edit pacing and subtle changes in color in the DI,” notes DeMarco. “We consciously move in and out of aspect ratios in the episodes that mix MCU and sitcom. The sitcoms are always 4:3 or 16:9. When we move to a cinematic 2.39 picture, it’s that cue to the viewer. We planned extensively for the moments where we knew we would break from traditional sitcom filming style. All of our MCU scenes were blocked with action in mind and were filmed on their own set of lenses. Much of our ‘MCU’ filming was on location and outside. Moving away from the sets gave our shots a sense of scale along with the action beats.”
Shakman concludes, “We were inspired by many different classic shows for each era, but ultimately we wanted to create WandaVision – something our own, something original, that felt thoroughly of the time. Tone is a mysterious thing – it can be really difficult to nail. It requires lots of experimentation and playfulness. Keeping things grounded is key. And having a strong story to pull you through. For all our stylistic experimentation, this is a love story between two amazing and very different characters. That’s what holds it all together.”